I've been a devotee of the Dark Madonna for years now, although I'm certainly not religious in any formal sense of the word. There are shrines to her throughout my house, and I have a large tattoo of her on my right arm that regularly gets me stopped by admirers when I'm out and about. The Dark Madonna is champion of the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized and dispossessed; the one who fights outside of the mainstream for those who feel betrayed and abandoned by the status quo...she's the maverick, the subversive Madonna. And to many, myself included, she is the Great Mother, the goddess of the earth, the Divine Feminine.
So this year I felt compelled to go up to Santa Fe to check out the annual procession held in honor of what is probably the most widely adored Dark Madonna of them all, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. Guadalupe is everywhere in New Mexico and is loved by many both within and outside of the catholic community. Processions, dances and special celebrations are held everywhere on her feast day, and the night before. This particular procession was to kick off the feast day celebrations in Santa Fe, with a route beginning at the Cathedral and ending at the newly-dedicated statue of Guadalupe at the Santuario de Guadalupe across town.
My son, Max, and I drove up early, had a solid meal of tamales and chile at Tomasitas, and walked over to the Cathedral, which at the moment is surreally wrapped in scaffolding and plastic, Christo-style. What with that and construction in the Plaza, downtown Santa Fe is looking pretty strange this Christmas. The procession was supposed to start at 7. We went into the Cathedral and found it full of people getting ready to listen to the Santa Fe Symphony; the procession was forming up at a hall next door. So we went around there but it was all but deserted...we were in the right place, but where was everybody? I was expecting a crowd of hundreds! We wandered back around to the front of the Cathedral just as a huge group of people appeared seemingly out of nowhere, all converging on the scene. A troupe of Aztec dancers arrived in a pickup, decked out in gigantic feathered headdresses, and pulled around to the hall.
We went back, and joined the crowd near a huge image of Guadalupe wreathed in flowers, borne on the shoulders of several young women. Looking around, I saw that Max and I were among the bare handful of Anglo faces visible...and he was easily the tallest of us, at 6' 4"! Excitement started to build in the air, an electric feeling that was a combination of joy, passion, and raw power. Someone handed out white taper candles sheltered by clear plastic cups, and one by one they were lit, pools of light appearing as little knots of people gathered to pass the flames from one candle to the other. The drums began, loud, fierce, and I caught a whiff of burning copal. I thought it was ironic, the stark contrast between the chaotic, almost frenetic energy in the courtyard and the ordered, upscale white European event, attended by Santa Fe's elite, going on inside the church next to us. And it was clear to me where the real power was: out here under the stars, in the street, among the people. This was where the wild energy was, the fierce love, the devotion, and it felt old, incredibly ancient--deeper than the institution that purported to contain it, certainly. I could feel a wild emotion welling up in me, around me, and knew that this was all for Her, the Mother, dancing with her people in their own way, on their own terms.
Suddenly, with a huge amount of noise (surely they could hear it inside the cathedral! What were they thinking, I wondered) we were off, fast, away from the church and down the street, past the parking garage and the shops toward the Plaza. The Aztec dancers led the way. Max and I fell into place in a large group immediately behind a second group of dancers in red and white, adorned with multiple sequined images of Guadalupe and holding rattles, effigies of hands, and bows and arrows. At every intersection they paused and danced. These were traditional dances from Mexico, I guessed, as I'd never seen anything like them here and they all looked indigenous, yet different--more energetic--than what I've seen at our pueblos. Moving down the street in the crowd, I felt like I was back in San Miguel de Allende somehow.
People appeared on the street and on balconies and at windows to watch the procession. Most of them looked bemused...this wasn't in the tourist brochures...what was going on? One couple stopped me to ask, undoubtedly because I was one of the few non-Hispanic faces in the crowd.
The procession wound around onto--you guessed it--Guadalupe Street, and our destination came into view: a 12', 4000 pound statue of painted metal, installed with much fanfare last August. A line of bonfires--luminarias--lit the scene from the street alongside her, and farolitos, the little brown paper bags with candles in them, lined all the sidewalks around the sanctuary. The statue itself was floodlit from below and there were dozens upon dozens of roses and candles at her feet. As we approached the groups of dancers performed for her at the foot of her statue before they moved off to the church.
Max and I watched it all as I tried to take a few surreptitious shots of the scene. The smoke from the luminarias wreathed around the people and the statue, and the color and movement of the dancers in the half light seemed mysterious and otherworldly. Max turned to me and said "Thanks for bringing me up here tonight, Ma". I was grateful, too...although it wasn't my religion, nor my community, nor my hometown, I felt like I was welcome, and a part of a very powerful expression of love, gratitude and celebration of the Divine Mother...who belongs to everyone, as we all belong to Her.
Aztec dancers as they prepare to process into the sanctuary.
The dancers, who had disappeared toward the church, suddenly reappeared after a while and the procession reformed to travel around the sidewalk and enter the sanctuary itself. We followed out of curiousity, although it seemed to me that the true focus of the procession was to arrive at the statue, and I felt complete with that. Everyone converged upon the entrance. The dance groups went in first, followed by those who hadn't already taken a place inside. The interior of the sanctuary, which I hadn't yet seen, was white and sterile, with ugly, politically correct flourescent lights in the wrought-iron lanterns and a curiously dark altar dominated by a reproduction of the original image of Guadalupe, before which the dancers were once again performing. Scattered around the front of the church were some lovely images, and Guadalupe was everywhere, but the overall feeling was oppressive, anticlimactic; we had entered the institution of the church, while the true life and focus of the celebration seemed to have begun and ended outside of it, on the streets, among the people.
I bought three roses, one red, one white, and one pink, from a woman in the back of the church. As we left, some people were offering free devotional cards, rosaries and bumper stickers from a table in the lobby. I was given a rosary of bright violet plastic beads; Max took one of brown beads. As we lingered at the back of the church, unwilling to stay, but not quite ready to leave, Max studied the prayer on the back of his card. "Don't look at the back" he said to me. Without my reading glasses on it was out of the question anyway, but apparently it was a rather pointed entreaty from a right-to-life group out of Colorado, one of the many groups who have appropriated the image of Guadalupe to promote their cause. Max knows I'm a fiercely dedicated feminist, but I just shrugged and said "put it in a little frame--you don't need to look at the back. The front is all that matters". After living in New Mexico for 12 years, I've come to respect everyone's religion and point of view, even if I don't agree with it.